Martin Roth: A born frontman

Will Gompertz
Arts editor
@WillGompertzBBCon Twitter

  • Published
Martin RothImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Roth raised the V&A's profile both at home and abroad

I met Martin Roth shortly before he took up his post as the V&A's director. He knew I'd worked at Tate and so asked me what I thought might surprise him about running a British institution.

"Meetings," I said, and left it at that.

Six months later I stopped by the V&A for a coffee with him to see how he was getting on. The newly installed director sat down, blew out his cheeks, and exclaimed, "Meetings!"

For a dynamic individual with a can-do attitude and bags of self-confidence, the peculiarly British way of managing a national museum was baffling and frustrating. He could still get done what he wanted to get done, but only once the palaver of making sure every department in the institution felt included and consulted was concluded.

It took him a while to acclimatise, and for the museum to get used to him. Not everyone was a fan, but many were. He was a born frontman who enjoyed the warm glow of the spotlight, as do most museum directors. He put his natural showmanship to good use by raising the V&A's profile and status in the UK and abroad.

I was a member of the judging panel for last year's Art Fund Museum of the Year award that gave the prize to the V&A. Not everybody was happy about the decision - including the current director - but it was fully deserved.

Roth put the V&A on the front foot; made it feel contemporary and relevant, won new audiences and boasted sector-leading diversity figures. Of course he made mistakes on occasion, but that comes with the territory - he was an intellectual impresario like all the great museum directors, a distinguished group to which he unquestionably belonged.

Even when he knew he was terminally ill, Martin Roth continued to work with the same energy and enthusiasm that became his trademark. He was a warm, open, entertaining man, who was in my experience never boring - even in meetings.

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